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From Objective to Subjective

Xinyu Zheng

AH393 Contemporary Art: 1980 to Now

July 31, 2017


Painting on canvas may be the most common medium throughout art history, but the

mid-20th century saw a period in which it was relatively little used. With the public focused on

the endlessly emerging new mediums, such as wall painting, film, installation, and performance,

some artists brought canvas painting back to the world stage as a demonstration of their

innovative individual ideologies. David Salle is one of those artists; his method of connecting

unrelated things on the same frame differentiates him from his neo-expressionist peers. However,

rather than presenting a detached, objective view, Salle is in fact conveying his ideology that

subjectivity connects all objects. As the artist, Salle partly shares his identity with viewers

because the thought he wants to express is based on every viewers individual experience and

knowledge. By juxtaposing seemingly unrelated objects and guiding viewers to connect them

with their subjective thinking, Salle exemplifies how everything is connected by subjectivity. As

Barnett Newman says, in effect that for Americans there is no objective universe, only masses

of disparate data.1

In mid-20th century, artists felt increasingly restricted by the two-dimensional form of

painting on canvas to illustrate the three-dimensional world. They expelled such forms of

painting and explored new and varied media to convey their messages based on personal

ideology. Since this moment, art was no longer objective and figurative, but used more to present

an artists individual opinion.

1. Diacono, Mario. Iconography and Archetypes: The Form of Painting, 1985-1994

(Milano: SilvanaEditoriale, 2010), 53.


Within a few decades, this trend of anti-painting art reached its peak, but artists began to

consider how far could they reach by using traditional forms of painting to express their

subjective world. This thought against the major anti-painting trend led to a return to painting

around 1980.2 Neo-expressionists such as Schnabel, Fischl, and Clemente enthusiastically

challenged various aspect of the definitions of traditional painting: color, medium, motif, and

subject. Canvas painting focused less on the figurative and objective and more on the abstract

and subjective, since contemporary artists focused on describing psychology rather than the

shape of things. For example, David Salles works share a common factor, which is that they

juxtapose subjects from life, cultural motifs from different nations, appropriated works from

earlier artists, historical events, or nude female figures in the same frame. It is hard to

differentiate all these elements and understand Salles intention at first viewing because he

avoids all appearances of a narrative linking the sub-images in all his works.3 Indeed, his

juxtaposition of various items shows his viewers contradiction, mystery, and conflict, but no

continuity nor completeness, of which he displays no intention. However, this collage-like

discontinuous painting encourages his viewers to identify the intrinsic connections and

relationships among every seemingly-unrelated section. Viewers therefore interpret this based on

their individual experience, mentality, and background. Supported by viewers curiosity and

2. McEvilley, Thomas. The Exile's Return: Toward a Redefinition of Painting for the Post-

modern Era (Cambridge [England]: New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 1

3. Diacono, Mario. Iconography and Archetypes: The Form of Painting, 1985-1994

(Milano: SilvanaEditoriale, 2010), 53


exploration, Salle creates new relationships between the motifs he chooses in one work and

conveys that through a subjective viewpoint, everything is connected.

As we are surrounded by masses of information, people nowadays find it much harder to

be satisfied by simply admiring the purity of beauty, but prefer to observe art as one object with

the other information sources. In effect, Salles juxtaposition fulfills the requirement from

unsatisfied and curious viewers that each segment of his painting shares no apparent connection

with others, and indeed, each works title offer no hint as to the meaning.4 In Fooling with Your

Hair (1985, Fig. 1), Salle divides the frame into two equal layers; each is divided into much

smaller sections. There appears to be no direct connection between the layers. On the top layer,

three complete ovals and two incomplete ovals roughly match each other. The three complete

ovals are red, yellow, and blue, which was intentional by the artist as they are primary colors. As

Diacono notes, the two statues that appear inside the yellow and blue ovals are two Giacometti

sculptures, which is a reference to an event happened in 1950: Barnett Newmans first exhibition

in New York, which was deemed an attack on art.5 On the lower level, in three almost equally

divided sections, Salle painted nude female figures, which is common in his work. These three

nude figures are more like serialized cartoon, which shows more continuity and a sense of story.

Although the figures identities are vague, it is likely that he is depicting the same woman in

three different poses; this encourages viewers to seek continuity and a plot to identify this

woman. These three lower sections also clearly show the light coming from different directions,

which suggests that a certain amount of time has passed between each of these three scenes.

4. Ibid., 57

5. Ibid., 56

Also, since Salle divided these two layers into two roughly equal sections, he implies that they

are similar in importance. All these fragments of information encourage viewers to find the

intrinsic connections among the sections. This method of juxtaposing elements in such a ratio

and pattern enables Salle to make his viewers participate in his creation and become part of his


In effect, Salle does not only create connection between unrelated objects, but also makes

efforts to eliminate the solid prejudice of objects. In another work, the Gericault's Arm (1985,

Fig. 2), Salle displays female nudity without a hint of eroticism. This exemplifies his desire for

dividing the meaning of the thing in the painting from the meaning of thing in the world. 6 Salle

adds Gerricaults work, a painting of a disembodied arm, in place of one of the female figures

head, which makes the painting more surreal rather than erotic. Also, he chooses to add one toy-

like object in between the two nude female figures, who are depicted with traditionally erotic

poses and half-covered bodies. In fact, this object shares a similar shape with these two female

figures. This connection of shape makes viewers reconsider what a nude female body means

when it is removed from its erotic subtext built in public awareness and classical art. Through

exhibiting multiple aspects of things that are typically displayed negatively or are prejudiced

against with unrelated objects, Salle encourages viewers to reconsider, reevaluate, and redefine,

which is, to see such elements as meaningless, rather than as standard.7

6. Hubert, et al. Christian, Post-Modernism: A Symposium, Real Life Magazine (Summer

1981), 410:4.

7. Kalb, Peter R. Art since 1980: Charting the Contemporary (2013), 71.

Salle also frequently borrows motifs and works from earlier artists, which are commonly

deemed as high art, but intentionally juxtaposes them with vulgar figures, popular icons, and

cultural items from different nations. In Lampwicks Dilemma (1989, Fig. 3), he borrows

multiple works from Velasquez, Bernini, and Cezanne, who are recognized as masters of art.

However, he juxtaposes their works and overlaps them with each other to break the originals

completeness. Additionally, in Ugolinos Room (1990-91, Fig. 4), he adds highly modernist

dialog boxes with various other shapes and colors on group scene of medieval figures. This

addition partly brings historical times in connection with modernity, and changes viewers aspect

of being bystanders by putting classical figures into current daily life. All these features look like

invaders of the original works, but a strong impact is expressed through the juxtapositions. In

those juxtapositions, Salle also attempts to challenge the attitude of viewing masterpieces or

existing objects, as he says, the paintings have to be die; that is, from life but not a part of it, in

order to show how a painting can be said to have anything to do with life in the first place.8

Within the same frame, juxtaposing seemingly unrelated items creates a sense of change

in time, space, and identity, since every section is clear and solid, but Salle offers no thread to

link these fragments. Through this method, Salle creates an interaction between his work and its

viewers. He offers viewers space for considering based on every individuals experience and

knowledge, for them to find their own meaning. In his juxtapositions, which encourage people to

consider the links between objects, Salle exemplifies how a connection could be built between

every object since everything is subjectively related.

8. Wallis, Brian. Art after Modernism: Rethinking Representation (New York: Boston: New

Museum of Contemporary Art; D.R. Godine, 1984), 153.



Diacono, Mario. Iconography and Archetypes: The Form of Painting, 1985-1994. Milano:

SilvanaEditoriale, 2010.

Fooling with Your Hair, Lampwick's Dilemma, Ugolino's Room, Salle, David. Accessed


Hubert, et al. Christian, Post-Modernism: A Symposium, Real Life Magazine (Summer 1981).

Kalb, Peter R. Art since 1980: Charting the Contemporary. 2013.

McEvilley, Thomas. The Exile's Return: Toward a Redefinition of Painting for the Post-modern

Era. Contemporary Artists and Their Critics. Cambridge [England]: New York:

Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Sandler, Irving. Art of the Postmodern Era: From the Late 1960s to the Early 1990s. 1st ed. New

York: IconEditions, 1996.

Wallis, Brian. Art after Modernism: Rethinking Representation. Documentary Sources in

Contemporary Art. New York: Boston: New Museum of Contemporary Art; D.R.

Godine, 1984.

Figure 1, David Salle, Fooling with Your Hair, 1985. Oil on canvas;

Figure 2, David Salle, Gericault's Arm, 1985. Oil and synthetic polymer paint on canvas.

Figure 3, David Salle, Lampwick's Dilemma, 1989. Oil and acrylic on canvas.

Figure 4, David Salle, Ugolino's Room, 1990-91. Acrylic and oil on canvas.